1. The Eternal Mothers
Nearly all of their children had died. A few other Mothers had survived, never fathers, always Mothers, so now they had grand-children, and their grand-children had grand-children, but it was a fundamental truth of their existence: Nearly all of our children die.
The Eternal Mothers felt one of them play. It was a smart one, another one of those who might become Mothers one day, but for now it was just a pregnant child, eager to learn and still able to see.
They had gone to the shore, where it was still deep enough for the Eternal Mothers to move, but bright enough for the child to see. The Eternal Mothers hated teaching them at this age, never knowing if it was a waste of time, but they had to teach them while they could still see, while they could still be imparted with memories of colour and light. Memories that seemed, to the Eternal Mothers, as distant as the shores where they awoke.
Suddenly, the child turned, her currents a flurry of agitation.
“What is it?”, asked the Eternal Mothers. It was safe here, even safer than in the rest of their world. Few predators dared to venture near the Eternal Mothers, and the child was smart enough to hide from anything that might threaten it, and it was well-armed.
“A light above the surface”, the child answered, her currents sharp, focused.
“Remember your lessons.”
“Excuse us, Mothers Eternal. White, moving fast across the …” The child trailed of, concentration and embarrassment radiating from it.
“Yes, sky. It is getting brighter – it nearly hurts my eyes.”
May they dry out and never hurt you again, the Eternal Mothers thought. And then the water screamed at them, a deafening noise both in their ears and their bodies, and one of the Eternal Mothers grabbed the child as fast as she could and out and wrapped herself around it.
“An … earthquake?”, the child asked, trembling with fear, and a wave of pride washed over the Mothers. The child had learned the difference between sea and land.
It was still wrong, though. “An impact. Maybe a meteorite. Close to us.” It happened often enough. The Eternal Mothers knew about the ring of rocks that encircled their world, and that sometimes they became disturbed.
“Remember the light you saw. Getting brighter. Burning up. Falling from the sky.” Remember the light, child, they thought. Remember the light, for all of us. And then one of the Eternal Mothers thought up, quietly: Something felt wrong.
“Find your own Mothers, child”, the Eternal Mothers said. “Tell them to come here.”
2 – The Pilot
A drop landed on her cheek and crept upwards.
Paula slowly regained consciousness. Her entire head hurt, her nose felt swollen and her ears were ringing. Her arms were hanging beside her head.
Interesting, her training told her. 0.8 to 0.9 g, inverted. The suit was doing its best to keep enough blood out of her head for now, but for whatever reason, the helmet hadn’t deployed.
A drop landed on her cheek and crept upwards.
She opened her eyes and shut them again immediately. It was extremely bright outside, shards of light piercing through the cockpit and her retinas, leaving a ghostly afterimage of the console in front of her and the struts surrounding her.
Blue, her training told her. Atmosphere, probably. Crash landing.
She remembered, vaguely at first. Ringed water world. Passengers wanted to take a look. Frame shift drive malfunction – or rather, a refusal to stop functioning -, emergency dropout.
A drop landed on her cheek and crept upwards.
Her hearing returned, slowly, and she wished it hadn’t. The constant alarms were tolerable, but the computer voice was barely tolerable during normal operations, now it reminded her even more of a useless grandmother dishing out unsolicited advice.
“Warning. Ejection sequence failed. Warning. Ejection sequence failed. Warning. Eject -” Her hand finally found the button to mute the alarm. Silence fell, more or less. Power plant is still running, her training told her. Barely. Also … Waves splashing against the hull?
A drop landed on her cheek and crept upwards. Oh, she thought. Water world. Crash landing.
Carefully, she opened her eyes just a little bit and looked down – up right now, her training said -, searching for the source of the drip, avoiding the brightness outside. On the grated metal beneath – above right-, shut up, she told her training – her, another drop formed, a dark liquid seeping through. Not water. Coolant? Then she remembered something.
That’s what you get for flying alone nearly all of your life, she thought, coughed and was pleasantly surprised that her voice still seemed to work.
“Francis? Are you alright?”
No answer. She tore of the glove from her left hand and touched her cheek, rubbing the liquid beneath her fingers, putting her senses to work. Red. Copper. Blood.
3 – The Other Mothers
The rush of a water jet, the pressure front of her daughters hurrying towards them, their arrival heralded by the the disturbance of an abrupt halt engulfing them.
They waited for the water to calm down. Then, respectfully: “You called for us, Mothers Eternal? Is it about the quake?”
“I did, children,” the Mothers Eternal answered, “But it was no quake of earth or sea. Sunnone along the coast, something returned from the skies.”
The other Mothers quivered, as did their child, the older ones trembling with fear, the young one with anticipation. “The Thieves of Light?”, they asked, and, as was custom, hurriedly added, “and Darkness?”
“Maybe. We felt a measure of control, we heard no breaking apart of stone, but the screech of metals on rock.”
Metals were not unheard of in the Deep and Shallow. Once, a part of the shore had slid into the shallows, and brought with it the artifact, a metal construct that, for a while, filled the waters with pulsing light for all the children to see. And before that, the Eternal Mothers journey, surrounded by metal, trapped, caged, set free and blinded shortly after.
“Swim, daughters. Investigate. Report. Take the child, you might need to see, and it can still hide.”
In theory, all of them could hide themselves from the eyes of others, but without eyes of their own, they needed someone to tell them how. The young one nearly burst with anticipation, a curious child, desperate, eager to prove its worth. And, like all of the young ones were when pregnant, furious at the Thieves that had condemned her to either live in darkness or to die in the light.
4 – The Scientist
Dear ship designers, Paula wrote in her head, is there a reason why this canopy is so bloody enormous?
She was facing one of the more ridiculous choices of her life. She could either end her headache inducing entrapment in her seat and try not to land on her head, which would leave her without access to the controls of the ship, or she could stay where she was and hope that none of the arteries in her brain decided to tell her that she, even if she were accustomed to standard gravity, was not designed to endure it the wrong way around.
The intercom light on her comm panel blinked.
Oops, she thought. Them.
It wasn’t entirely her fault that she had forgotten about them. She was a fighter pilot. A Federation-trained, Federation-disgusted, thus ex-Federation fighter pilot who had been hired by a small private fleet company at the outer edges of human civilization. She was not, emphatically not, as she had told her boss, a tour guide, or a flight attendant, or a wet nurse for a bunch of scientists that wanted to take a look at an – at least according to them – particularly interesting Earth-like world roughly a kylie beyond Quince.
She was, however, as she had been told, an employee of said private fleet company, had been stupid enough to get a type rating for nearly all the ships owned by said company, and was paid twelve percent of everything said company earned, so she, as her boss had made abundantly clear, better put said scientists in their self-sustaining cabin, take them wherever they want to go, and be half a million richer by the end of the week. Alternatively, she could be unemployed within five minutes.
She flicked on the intercom. “This is your captain speaking”, she said, “what can I do for you today?”
“You can let us out of this death trap!”, a male voice shouted. “How dare you turn off our escape pods!”
Interesting, she thought. Passenger cabins were, apart from the obvious lack of engines, tiny spaceships within spaceships – none of their systems were under control of or dependent on the mother ship. You couldn’t even open the door from the outside. Too many passengers had suddenly found themselves living the life of indentured servants before the rest had learned that lesson.
“I didn’t”, she answered calmly, “and you bloody well know that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. What’s your status down there?”
Anger turned into fear. “One of my colleagues is dead”, the man said. “The other one is unconscious, but seems to be stable. I am reasonably well, under the circumstances. The cabin’s life support is still working, but the external comms and sensors are down, and I think my arm is broken.”
Paula’s respect for the man increased slightly. “Interesting definition of reasonably well. I’m sorry about your colleague.”
“I made a splint. And thank you. But listen, Pilot -“
“Under the circumstances, I’d prefer if you called me Paula. My first officer is probably dead, my ship is half submerged and I’m trapped in my seat. I’m not piloting anything right now.”
“Alright. Paula. I’m Ben. Any chance of us getting out of here alive?”
Paula mulled that one over. “Maybe. The hull seems to be mostly intact. We don’t have a lot of power, and nothing except the computer itself and the life-support seems to be working, but it’s enough to keep us alive. My boss is going to miss us in a few days.”
“He the type to send a rescue party?” Ben the scientist seemed to have some experience with private fleet companies.
“Yeah, he actually is. He’ll probably jump into his beloved Python and use us as an excuse to escape administrative boredom.”
“Good to know. Anything I can do from down here?”
Up here, she thought. “Well, if you feel like taking a risk, you could come the cockpit and help me out of this seat,” she said. “You’d have to waive your passenger-crew protection rights, though.”
She was referring to the rules and regulations of passenger transport: As soon as a passengers open the door, the crew can not be held legally responsible for any damages to the passenger’s property, nor for any injuries of or other harm that might come to the passenger. In layman’s terms: A door closed is one less slave sold.
“Difficult one”, he said. “You dangerous?”
Competent, she thought. “I’m trapped in an upside-down seat. You decide whether it’s safer to leave me here until I die of an aneurysm, or to get me out and let me try to fix as much of this heap of trash as I can.”
“Kidding”, he said. “Just tell me where to go.”
“In a minute”, Paula said, squinting out of the window. “One question: What’s your field?”
“Xenobiology”, he answered, slightly baffled. “Why?”
“Because”, she said, her eyes adjusting to the brightness of the ocean, “there’s a squid outside staring at me.”
5 – The Child
“Tell us”, she felt the Mothers urging her, “what do you see?”
The child swam around the strange, quite large object, taking her time. There were none of the curves and semi-circles of the artifact, but, she noticed with delight, parts of it blinked rhythmically. She knew about blinking. Other parts seemed to warm the water around and the rocky reef beneath it. The child didn’t dare to venture under the object, where it seemed to be warmest and a strange shimmer of orange or yellow – she didn’t know her colours very much – brightened up the floor of the shallows.
“Child”, the Mothers said. “What. Do. You. See?” The blind, as always, using her as a tool, an instrument. One of her arms touched her lower head. She hadn’t fertilized her eggs yet, and she feared the moment when she would finally muster the courage to do so, when her life would either end in light or she would live on, in the darkness, for all eternity. Soon, her arm whispered in her outer consciousness. One or gone, soon.
“It is large,” she said and instantly chided herself for being vague. “At least ten of my arm spans wide and nearly as long. Or the other way around. It is made of lines and corners”, she told the Mothers. “Triangles within triangles, and …” She edged a little closer to the cleft between the sea floor and the object and turned her body upside down. “Two of the symbols of the artifact. The third and the fifth.”
“Thieves”, the Mothers whispered. For the artifact had come with the Eternal Mothers, and talked to them, until the lights had died, in the strange sounds of the Thieves.
The child crept further along the object. Ahead of her, there was a set of planes where the light fractured and bent, like it did when passing the surface. She took a closer look, her huge eyes adjusting to the darkness inside, where blue and maybe orange, maybe yellow light shone dimly.
Inside the object was an animal. It stared at her. The child stared back.
6 – The Thieves
Ben had entered the cockpit on the lower-now-upper floor, checked on Francis – dead, as she had already assumed, considering the large pool of blood that had formed above her head – and was now climbing up the ladder to the pilot deck. Or down. She shook her head.
“I really need to get out of this chair,” she told him, their heads more or less at the same level, their feet most definitely not. “Or I might die out of sheer frustration with the grammar needed to describe our situation.”
He smiled. It was a good smile, the smile of a someone planet-born and -raised. No pale and slightly scarred skin, no hollow cheeks, no atrophied facial muscles.
“Well”, he said, “give me your hand and release the harness, and I’ll swing you down.” She looked at his broken arm and raised an eyebrow.
“It won’t be a problem”, he said, politely not mentioning the mass difference between the two of them, or the fact that he’d be a lot better at dealing with the local gravity with one arm than she was with two.
She sighed, nodded, took the offered hand and pushed the emergency release button. A moment of confusion followed, the world rotated, and then she sank to her knees on the roof of the cockpit, blood rushing out of her head, graying her world for a few seconds.
She pointed outside. “See”, she said. “Squid.”
“Octopus, actually”, Ben said. He frowned. “A bit too much of an octopus for convergent evolution. Non-licensed terraforming world?” The navigational database had marked the planet as unexplored, which until now had been a source of joy about bonus payments for Paula, nothing more. “No navigational markers in the system, no surface installations”, she said. “We checked before we crashed, hoping to find a better spot to go down.”
“Yeah”, he said, “not enough landmass for terraforming. Strange. Because unless I’m thoroughly mistaken, that looks like a giant pacific octopus out there.”
The octopus drifted in the water, huge eyes focused on the two humans.
“It also looks kind of thoughtful”, Paula said. “Like it doesn’t know what to make of us.” She shrugged. “Anyway. Fascinating as this might be, we are crashed on an uncharted planet, comms are down, power is at a minimum, and the ship is upside down. I need to see if I can get the thrusters back online. And the FSD. Or else, the comms.”
“Any hope that you can do that?” he asked, not unkindly, but demanding honesty. “I don’t know. Francis was the engineering kind, I just fly these things. But I’ll do what I can.”
He nodded. “Alright. I’ll go and look after my colleague. Tell me if there’s anything I can do.”
“Will do”, Paula said, knowing all two well how much help a xenobiologist would be in helping to fix a spaceship, and turned her attention to the maintenance hatches above her head. “Oh, and thanks for getting me out.”
Ben nodded and vanished into the bowels of the ship.
7 – The Eyes of the Mothers
They have eyes, she heard the Eternal Mother voice tell her, memories of her early years. But they are so small, you might overlook them. Arms, too, but only four, with tiny arms at each end, and along their body, not around it.
“Body?”, she had asked.
Like a lower head, but longer. And they can make sounds with their mouths, soft little things beneath their eyes.
Another thief had come in to view, and then there was a lot of complicated movement, and the soft little things beneath their tiny eyes had moved, and sound had vibrated through the translucent material. The other thief had left soon, and now the arms of the first one were … doing something. Ignoring her.
“Child?”, the other Mothers asked, concern in the streams of their voices.
“Thieves”, she said. “Two of them. They saw me. Now they ignore me. They ignore me! How dare they!”
“Calm down, child. Let’s go and see the Eternal Mothers. Remember everything. Tell them everything.”
8 – The One …
Paula screamed in frustration at the maintenance panel that had, so far, resisted all her attempts to open it.
“Is there something wrong?”, asked a female voice behind her, clipped, precise, cultured. Paula let out another short scream – one of surprise this time – and whirled around.
A dark-haired woman was standing in the doorway, tall, muscular, slightly amused.
“I guess you are the colleague? Feeling better?” Paula said after taking a deep breath.
The woman nodded, a smile touching the corners of her mouth. “Slight concussion, nothing serious. I’m Deirdre. Nice to meet you. Impressive war cry.”
Paula’s face turned red. “Strikes fear into the heart of my enemies”, she said. “That panel, however, remains unimpressed.”
“Thruster control node?” Deirdre asked.
“Manual says so”, said Paula. “You know anything about spaceships?”
“A little. Not much. I am a medical doctor. But my father used to have an Asp like this one. He used to take me on little tours around the Old Worlds.”
“So what’s a rich core world girl like you doing out here in the black?”, asked Paula while trying to wedge a long, broken piece of metal into the gap between the panel and the bulkhead.
“Science, I had hoped. Though right now, I was about to offer putting your copilot in cryo.”
Francis. She had taken him from his seat and put him in the hallway behind the lower cockpit before she had set out to get the Asp respond to any of her commands again.
“Why?” she asked.
Deirdre stared outside, not meeting her eyes. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is about 35 degrees centigrade in here. You do not want to share your air with a decomposing body.”
Paula sighed. “Alright”, she said. “Thank you.” She turned her attention to the stubborn panel again, put her weight behind her improvised lever, and pushed. The panel tore off with a screeching sound. Finally, she thought, checking the conduits leading into the thruster node.
A large wave collapsed over the ship, and it rocked slightly. She frowned. The Asp had a lot of mass and was, as far as she could tell, resting quite firmly in the shallow waters. She glanced at Deirdre, who was looking outside with her mouth wide open. Paula followed her gaze.
The octopus had returned, frantically moving its arms, darting this way and that in front of the canopy until another arm, this one a lot larger, reached out from behind it and touched it with a gentleness that did not seem appropriate for its size at all. At least three meters wide, lined with suckers the size of thruster exhausts, it was a massive, surreal sight, like an organic, flexible shipyard crane with a mind of its own. And at its end –
Paula moved back to the aft bulkhead and found herself standing next to Deirdre, both of them pressing their backs against the metal.
– at its end was a massive head, the skin a crusty landscape not unlike a small moon, the entire beast dwarfing the Asp Explorer in front of it, folding and unfolding its arms, their tips creeping across the canopy, the hull, almost tender, almost caressing.
“Look at its eyes”, whispered Deirdre, “compare.” Paula looked. The eyes of the small … smaller octopus were bright, shining with light and colour, giving an impression of intelligence, always searching its surroundings, focusing on her, on Deirdre, the ship, the monster behind it.
The eyes of the monster were milky white, scarred, empty. Blind.
“Stop telling me what you see, child”, the Eternal Mothers said. “Tell me what you think.”
The child stopped in her tracks. Thinking was harder, a lot harder, than seeing and talking.
“I think … I think they are afraid. Especially the first one. The new one looks … afraid as well, but also … interested? Like it wants to ask something?”
“Curious?”, the Eternal Mothers asked.
“Yes! Yes. Curious. She moving towards us now, raising her upperleft arm, pushing it against the see-through metal.”
“I cannot feel them across that boundary, child”, the Eternal Mother said, sadness in her currents, “hear them a little, but not feel. Help us, child. Guide one of us.”
The child shuddered, honoured, bewildered, in awe.
“Do not be afraid. We are with you. And you are with us.”
One of the Eternal Mothers, the one that had calmed her down, stretched out for her. The child swam towards the see-through metal, one of her arms whispering to her, whispering to the Eternal Mother that followed them, until –
– until the tip of the enormous arm touched the point of the canopy where Deirdre’s hand rested inside.
“Did you see that?”, asked Deirdre, her voice a husky whisper. “It guided the larger one. She moved her hand across the canopy. The huge arm followed her movements, and the smaller octopus made gentle motions, indicating direction, speed. “It’s still guiding it.”
“Like a seeing-eye dog?” Paula asked.
“A seeing-eye dog”, said Paula, “it was an animal trained to guide blind people before there were implants – and drones for those that reject them.”
Deirdre gave her a look. “You’re full of surprises for an ex-fighter pilot.”
“Your father had an Asp, my father had old books”, Paula shrugged. She pointed at the monstrous octopus outside. “What’s it doing now?”
The huge arm pointed at them, then at the head it was attached to, and at them again. Then it pointed at the eyes of the smaller animal.
“It wants us to look at something”, said Ben from the doorway. Paula flinched, but restrained herself enough to prevent another war cry.
“It’s an animal. How can it want something? Also, how can it be so huge?”
The xenobiologist grimaced. “There’s no real limit to how large marine animals can grow. Most of them have an off switch, so to speak, something in their genetic code that kills them after they have procreated enough.” He took a step towards the canopy. The huge animal pointed again and again.
“Can I get outside?” he asked.
“Are you mad?”, said Paula. “What if it’s pointing at its mouth?”
“Beak”, Ben said absentmindedly. “So, can I get out or not?”
“I will not let you risk your life. You’re still my passenger”, said Paula firmly.
He smiled. “And I waived my passenger-crew protection rights, remember?”
“You’re still under my protection, as far as I’m concerned.”
Ben sighed and pointed first at Deirdre, then at himself. “Xenobiology team. Paying to see new life.” He pointed at Paula. “Pilot being paid to take xenobiology team to see new life.” He pointed outside. “New life.”
“Fine”, Paula said, “if you want to kill yourself, go ahead. No need to be an ass about it.” She reached up to her seat, put on her helmet and activated the holo controls. “I can’t open the airlock, its submerged. But you can leave through the cargo hatch. There’s a spare RemLok suit next to the door.”
“That will not be necessary”, said Deirdre, deep in thought. “The atmosphere is breathable. No pathogens detected. I checked before I came down here.”
Paula sighed. “And the water is breathable as well? Because I don’t think that thing will join you on the beach, Mr and Mrs Xenobiology Team.”
“Point taken”, said Ben. “And thanks.”
A hissing sound, distorted through the barrier between air and sea.
“Take a look, child”, the Eternal Mothers said. The child rushed up to the surface and put her eyes above the water. One of the Thieves was climbing out of the metal contraption, clad in a dark, slick material. He moved towards her.
“One of them is coming”, she said.
“Help him”, said the Eternal Mothers. “Guide him to us. Be gentle.”
Paula and Deirdre had moved to the copilot deck and watched Ben kneel down at the edge of the water.
“Having second thoughts?”, Paula asked through the short range comms link.
He looked at them, smiling weakly beneath the transparent face plate.
“I think I’m at my sixth or seventh thoughts now”, he admitted. “I -“
The smaller octopus looked up at him, half a meter between them. The fractured image between the below and the above gave Paula another headache.
One of its arms stretched out into the air, curling towards the water, stretching out again. Ben shrugged and extended his hand.
The arm grasped it firmly and pulled him into the sea.
“Told you so”, Paula said acidly. Deirdre shook her head. “No, look.”
Ben was waving at them while the octopus maneuvered him through the water. The intercom crackled.
“No reason to get excited”, he said, tension in his voice betraying him. “If it wanted me dead, I’d be dead already.”
“We are losing sight of you, Ben”, said Deirdre. “You are getting to far away.”
“It must be uncomfortable for her to be that close to the shore”, Ben said, “I guess she had to put some water beneath her so she could stretch her arms.”
“She?” asked Paula.
“Yeah, it’s a female. And it’s definitely a giant pacific octopus.”
“It’s definitely deserving its name.”
“I’m getting closer to her now. The smaller let go of me. She’s reaching out. I’m taking her arm. She’s … she’s pulling me toward the back of her head. There’s …”
Deirdre looked at Paula. “Annoying, is it not? He always stops talking when he sees something really interesting. It is a bad habit for fieldwork.”
“I can still hear you. There’s some kind of markings here. I can’t make it out. Does this suit have any lights?”
“You forget the utility belt, did you?”, said Paula.
“Yeah, I might have. Wait, the smaller one is …”
In the distance, there was a faint glow.
“Fascinating. It’s using its chromatophores to redirect the sunlight.”
Paula frowned at Deirdre. “Colour-changing skin cells”, the doctor said without taking her eyes from the distant light.
“It looks like … the markings are very old, very faint. Overgrown.”
“What do they look like?”, asked Deirdre. Ben didn’t answer. “Ben? What do they look like?”
“Writing”, he said after a long pause. “Human writing.”
10 – … That Is Many
“Three lines of writing. First line: Capital X, capital D, capital S. Next line: Something that looks like an old Greek Kappa, followed by the numbers 2367. Next line: Capital E, capital D, open bracket, lowercase m, close bracket, followed by the numbers 100010, dash, 1110.”
Deirdre looked up from the notes she had taken while Ben had been outside.
“The first line quite obviously means Exodus”, she said.
“Now that’s a word that’s going around a lot lately”, said Paula. The three of them had assembled on the former lower cockpit ceiling, with Paula still working on the thruster node. The smaller octopus was occasionally waving an arm at them. Paula waved back.
“What do you mean?” asked Ben.
“Rumors, GalNet articles, distant beacons in the void. My boss disappeared for a few weeks a while ago, said he had a client asking for a discreet investigation. Turns out, he went to Hawkin’s Gap.”
“The Dynasty expeditions, you mean”, said Deirdre. Paula shrugged. “Yeah. Didn’t get much of attention, with all that’s happening down in the Pleiades.”
“I remember”, said Ben. “But if that second line is a year, we’re talking about something 900 years older than that.”
“If that second line is a year”, Paula said doubtfully, “were talking about a 900 year old octopus. And a very smart one.”
Ben stared off into the distance, along the rocky shore.
“She’s blind”, he said after a while.
“Remember how I told you about the internal death switch?”, he replied. “Cephalopods – squids, octopi, calmars – often have a rather strange one. They die after procreating, they stop eating and, basically, lose their interest in living. But the process can be stopped by removing their optic glands.”
“But the optic glands have nothing to do with vision”, protested Deirdre.
“No”, he conceded, “but genetic engineering used to be very hit and miss. Pull out one thread, you pull out a dozen others. What if someone tried to make them live longer?”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”, Paula asked.
“Because they are intelligent”, said Ben. “Among the most intelligent Old Earth animals that ever lived. The problem was, their lifespan was too short to make anything out of it. But if you gave them a longer life …” He trailed off.
“You get one scarily smart animal?”, Paula said while reconnecting a stubborn fibre cable. A green light appeared. “Like the one outside?”
“Indeed”, said Deirdre. “The problem is, experiments like these have been forbidden for centuries.”
“Let me guess, nine?” She connected another cable. A distant hum vibrated through the ship.
“More or less, yes”, said Ben. “That sounds promising.”
“Yeah, I hope so. I barely passed basic ship maintenance. But I think if I manage to reroute this …”
The hum grew louder. Around the cockpit, a faint light started to shine, and the water outside began to hiss. The octopus stared at them for a moment, than he vanished into the deep.
“Thrusters online”, said a mechanic voice.
“Thank you, dear”, said Paula, “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Warning. Unsafe attitude detected. Initiating automated recovery sequence”, continued the voice.
“What? No, over-“
The hum grew into a scream. The starboard bulkhead rushed towards her. She saw Deirdre grabbing Ben’s arm, the other hand clutching a rung of the ladder, she saw the metal wall closing in on her face.
“What happened, child?”, the Eternal Mothers asked calmly.
“Their contraption. It started to hiss, then it spat fire, like one of the vents on the seabed.”
“It is called a ship, little one. I felt an impact. Did it fail to leave?”
“It turned in the air”, the child said, “and crashed down again.”
“What about the Thieves? Are they still alive?”
“I do not know, Eternal Mother. I was too scared to look, and the waters were wild and too hot.”
“You did well, little one. We are glad you are safe. Please find out as soon as possible.”
The Eternal Mothers turned in the waters, slowly, until they faced their offspring. Most of those that lived close by had assembled around them.
“Mothers”, they said calmly, “bring news to your distant sisters and daughters. Tell them to hide, to seek shelter, to do nothing of note until We say otherwise.”
They paused, feeling the currents calm down, the light radiant heat from the second crash of the ship.
“You and you”, she said, pointing, “bring up the artifact.”
A drop landed on her cheek and crept downwards.
Paula slowly regained consciousness. Her head hurt, her nose felt swollen and her ears were ringing. She was lying on the cold metal floor, her arms stretched out beside her, her legs …
She opened her eyes and found Deirdre staring down at her, a concerned look on her face.
“Are you and Ben alright?”, she asked, her voice surprisingly firm.
Deirdre smiled a sad smile. “We are. You, on the other hand, are not, I am afraid to say.”
Paula nodded, a movement that sent searing pain through her spine.
“Let me guess, my back is broken?”
“Yes”, said Deirdre. “I am sorry. There is nothing I can do for you here except manage the pain.”
“Start managing it, then, will you”, Paula said and closed her eyes again, “because I don’t think I can.”
“I will, as soon as I can leave your side and start looking for more medical supplies. Alternatively …” Deirdre paused. “Can you turn your head?”
“Can. Don’t want to. Why?”
“Take a look outside.”
Paula opened here eyes again and slowly turned her head towards the side. Most of the upper canopy, now thankfully above the water, was gone. The small octopus was peaking at her from the surface, waving with one of its arms.
“It seemed concerned about you”, said Deirdre.
“How can you tell?”
“Can’t you?”, said Deirdre. “Look at its eyes.”
The octopus looked … well, Deirdre was right. It looked concerned. A little sad even. And scared.
“Isn’t that something xenobiology people always warn against? Anthro-something?”
“Anthropomorphism, yes. It is misleading, and prevents objective results”, Deirdre admitted.
“So why do it?”
“Because it also brought you this”, Deirdre said and held up a dead fish.
“Dinner? You think it wants a date?”
Deirdre smiled. “I would not recommend eating it. It is slightly poisoned and likely to cause cramps when ingested.”
“Why give it to me then?”, asked Paula.
“The poison. In smaller doses like the one in this fish, it is an analgesic.”
Paula looked at the octopus. It gestured somewhat wildly with its arms, and in between, it snapped its beak open and shut.
“It wants to bite me?”
Deirdre shrugged. “I think so.” She took a deep breath. “You have been unconscious for a while. Nearly two days. Ben has spent most of the time trying to establish some form of communication with them.”
“Well, let me quote his notes: ‘It is not easy trying to use a sign language that is based on having eight arms and uses water pressure differentials to express moods.’ Fortunately, they also seem to have some kind of spoken language. Ben is working on a … dictionary. It will take a while.”
“I don’t plan on spending too much time here, to be honest”, said Paula.
“We might not have another choice”, Deirdre said. “I do not believe the ship will fly again. It took me three hours to turn off the thrusters again. The power plant, the distributor, the life support, basically everything I could get a status report for has suffered massive heat damage.”
“The FTL antenna array is gone.” Deirdre stared out of the window. “We are stuck here.”
“We”, said the Eternal Mothers, “have been here since we awoke, in the cold confines of a tank encased in metal and glass.”
They did not know whether the Thief understood her or not, but they wanted to tell their story. For once, they wanted to tell their story to someone who could understand it. And they remembered from far back the Thieves had devices that could capture her image and movements and sounds, and the little one had seen this Thief using a device just like that, so they knew that he could hear her telling her story again and again and again, until he understood.
“You took the Outer Light from us and threw us into darkness. But at the same time, you gave rise to the Inner Light. You removed the barriers between us, so we could hear ourselves moving, touching, feeling, thinking as one.”
“They are extremely intelligent”, said Deirdre. “This is not an offer of some magic potion on a backwater world that has fallen back to tribal behavior. They know about the effects their poison has. They can dose it according to their needs.”
“You want me to get bitten by a hyper-intelligent octopus”, said Paula. “That always goes well in the old stories.”
“She is … as far as we can tell, she is pregnant and holding back laying her eggs.”
Deirdre sighed. “From what we can tell, the genetic engineering has erratic results. Most of them still die after procreating. Those that do not will, inevitably, go blind. The young ones like her are the eyes of the older, surviving, blind ones. She is …”
Paula shivered, a chill creeping down her body, and vanishing below her hip. “She’s afraid to die.”
“We are not angry. We are grateful. We have the young to see, the Mothers to teach, us to remember. But we are cursed with not knowing whether our children will live or die. We will live forever, and we have outlived most of our daughters, most of our granddaughters.”
The Eternal Mothers paused.
“We remember traveling through the void between the worlds. You let us see. You tried to make us understand.”
“They are fascinating creatures. Their arms – they more or less think for themselves as long as they are young. Only when they get older they start to form a kind of internal collective. They …”
Paula stopped listening and looked at the strange creature that had crept closer and was now hanging on the edge of the deck, three of its arms on the cold metal, its eyes focused on her.
Paula took a deep breath and stretched out her arm, ignoring the pain shooting through her, and beckoned the creature to come closer.
It slithered along the deck, pulling itself out of the water, its movements alien and disgusting, but at the same time so familiar, so recognizable – courage that is overcoming fear, curiosity, concern, care.
The little one slid beside her, caressing her face with one arm, while she weakly raised hers to stroke its head.
A sharp pain, followed by a soothing, comforting warmth, and fading pain. Paula smiled at the creature, and the little one touched her face one last time and moved back to the water.
11 – The Artifact
That’s interesting, Paula thought and pushed a button on her intercom. “Deirdre?”
“What is it?”, the doctor replied, worry in her voice. She and Ben had been spending the last hours in what remained of their quarters, analyzing data, and trying to make sense of the language their hosts used.
“You should come up here, both of you. Our friends brought us something.” She looked out of the canopy again. Ben had offered to carry her down to her bunk, but she enjoyed the fresh air, the skies above her, and the company.
Two of the Mothers had risen from the deeps, nearly as huge as the creature that, as far as they could tell, called herself the Eternal Mothers. Between them, they had carried a huge cylinder with rounded caps.
Ben and Deirdre appeared in the doorway.
“What is that?”, asked Ben.
“It looks like a nav beacon”, Paula said from the seat that had become her home in the last ten days. “More or less. Which means it should have an FTL antenna.”
She checked the close range comms channels.
“It seems to be low on power”, she said, “but it identifies as Exodus Kappa Beacon 2/3. Wait a minute, it just gave of a data burst. Logs, observation data, language analysis files.”
Deirdre gasped. “That is a treasure chest.”
Paula nodded. “Also, it might be a way to get out of here. As comfy as this chair is, I’d rather be here with an intact spine.”
“Apologies”, said Deirdre, “you are right, of course. What do we do?”
“It needs power, but the ship has none to spare. But we do have an intact SRV with a full tank in the hold, maybe we can jump start it.”
Ben frowned. “If we have a fueled vehicle, couldn’t we have used it to power the ship?”
“Whoever designed Scarabs”, Paula replied with a grimace, “decided to put a rather strange power plant in it. I might have used it to give our plant a kick when we still had one, but trying to run the ships systems from it would have been futile.”
“So you propose using it to jump start that thing’s FTL comms?”, he asked.
“Yeah”, she said. “It will burn out after the first try, so I’ll compose one short, omnidirectional, long-range emergency call.”
“Well”, Deirdre said and clapped her hands, “I guess I will get our vehicle from the garage, then.”
“Be careful”, said Paula, “the cargo hatch is submerged. Don’t turn on the thrusters unless you want to boil our friends. And yourself.”
A few hours later, the Other Mothers had heaved the beacon onto the shore, and Deirdre had hooked up the SRV to the towering artifact.
“Anything interesting?”, asked Paula.
“Nothing unexpected”, Deirdre replied. “I have connected the SRV power plant to the long range communication system. An internal diagnosis showed it to be in working condition.”
“Good work”, said Paula. “Message is composed and stored in the beacon’s memory banks as the message with the second highest priority.”
“Second highest?”, asked Ben from over her shoulder.
“Couldn’t help it”, she replied, slightly frustrated. “There is an embedded communication protocol that automatically puts an encrypted message on the top of the list. Probably just an identification and verification handshake with the network of whoever originally ran those things.”
“Will the time suffice to send our message as well?”, Deirdre asked skeptically.
“It will be cutting it close”, Paula admitted, “but it’s the only chance we have, unless we find one of the other beacons. And I have no way of knowing whether it worked after the comms short out.”
“Alright”, said Ben, “let’s do it.”
Paula looked at the little one that was looking at her curiously from its usual spot. “Shush”, she said and gestured what she hoped meant something like “get yourself to a safe distance”. The little one nodded – she had started picking up some human gestures – and vanished into the water.
“Deirdre”, Paula said and took a deep breath, “hit the switch.”
The Eternal Mothers had withdrawn to the depths, thinking, remembering. Fragments of sounds that never made sense to them changed their meaning, now that she understood more and more of the sounds the Thieves made when communicating.
Thieves. Not all of them. Not all of them trying to change who we are, imposing their will, and leaving us to suffer the consequences.
We understand now the Thieves. They could not care for us. They could not risk being found out. So they left us to our own devices, buried what they could and what had not been taken by the sea anyway.
Because not all of them are Thieves. Some are Mothers as well. And they care. And they bring the Thieves to light.
“Mothers Eternal”, the little one shouted, her currents a flurry of excitement and exhaustion, “they did it. They send a message.”
The Eternal Mothers tried to be happy, but they couldn’t. They understood now.
One of the Eternal Mothers reached out and grabbed the little one. Then they realigned their body, and, in perfect coordination, accelerated it through the waters.
“Paula?”, she heard Ben’s voice. Slowly, she opened her eyes.
“What is it?” she said. “Any news from above?”
“No”, he said, “but Deirdre called. She’s about five kilometers out and found another beacon.”
“That’s great”, Paula said weakly. “Anything we can use?”
Ben shook his head. “Sadly, no. It seems completely inert, doesn’t even respond to a data package query. She’ll have to access the memory banks manually.”
“Well”, Paula said, “I guess she knows what she’s doing.”
“The little one is throwing fishes at her from the shore. They seem to get along fine.”
“That’s …” Paula’s voice trailed off. “Are my eyes getting worse, or is it dusk already?”
“No, it’s …” His voice faltered as well. “It’s getting darker, isn’t it?”
Paula’s upper body shivered. Something sent a warning signal down her fractured spine, just seconds before a massive sound washed over the crashed Asp Explorer, a sound usually synthesized by the audio system, and carefully adjusted to instill awe, and terror, but not hearing damage.
Here, in the atmosphere, it was the real thing. The thunder of displaced air, the screech of a universe torn wide and closing again. A black cloud forming above their heads, blue lightning flashing in the darkness.
Warning, her training said. Capital class signature detected.
Deirdre saw the cloud forming, too, happiness and relief washing over her, and turned towards the SRV just to see it being snatched from the ground, one of the Eternal Mothers reaching out from the sea and drawing the small vehicle under water at a surprising speed. She stormed to the shore and searched the disturbed water.
CWhat was that? Why did she do that?”, she screamed at the waves. The little one’s head poked above the surface a few meters away from her.
Deirdre focused on the arm movements. She knew that the little one understood her well enough, but listening to her signing strained her and demanded a lot of concentration.
“Hide. Eternal Mother say hide. Hide. Hide! Hide!”
Deirdre frowned and turned to see the capital ship emerging from the cloud, hanging in the air a few kilometers above the crash site. Right now, she didn’t care whether they were Imps or Feds, as long as …
“That’s not an Interdictor”, Ben said. “Federation?”
“It’s not a Farragut, either”, Paula said. “But whoever they are, they received our distress call. Let’s …”
Brightness. And eternal darkness.
She saw the lances of light reaching out from the strange capital ship, she heard the distant explosion signaling the death of Ben, and Paula, and the ship, she saw the dropships descend, and circle and land.
She understood the Eternal Mother now while she hid in the shallows, her head barely above the surface of the warm water, the little one on her back, hiding her from sight.
The Thieves had been found out, and they had come back, and they removed all traces of their crimes.
Epilogue – The Human Mother
The Thieves didn’t find the second beacon, or Deirdre. So she settled in, living in the SRV that the Eternal Mothers returned to her as soon as the Thieves had left. She read the notes and logbooks, she learned the language of the Mothers and the children.
Three months after the Thieves had gone, the shock-wave of a ship leaving orbital cruise woke her up one morning. A battered old Python appeared overhead, banking and turning, searching, landing near the wreckage of the Asp.
“More Thieves?”, the little one – now one of the Mothers – gestured, their children swarming around her.
Deirdre put her hands into the water and shook it sharply, then used her voice. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Could go home. Back to stars. Back to Mother Earth.”
Deirdre remembered the wreckage, the few charred remains of Paula and Ben and the dead Mothers that had been caught in the blast. The Thieves had either been oblivious that their experiment had succeeded beyond their expectations, or they didn’t care anymore, else they would have taken and dissected the body.
She opened and closed her hand in the water. Maybe. The little Mothers touched her, gently. Maybe, one day.
Together, they listened as the Python took off and vanished into the dark above.
This was not, originally, an Elite story. It is based on an idea I had for the National Novel Writing Month 2011, an alternative history novel about a species of intelligent cephalopods that secretly shared Earth with us.
The novel never got finished, but the idea stuck, and when I read Drew Wagars Oolite novels, I remembered it and asked him for his permission to use the concept of humans populating the galaxy with genetically engineered animals.
He said yes, enthusiastically and immediately, providing further proof that he is an awesome human being. He also said he would like to read it, so I felt obliged to finish it, something I often do not manage with my private writing projects. So my gratitude is twofold. Thank you, Drew.
The character of Paula Schulz was created in memoriam of my NPC pilot with the same name, who deserved a better death than the one she had in the game.
For those who are curious about the strange life cycles of cephalopods, I can recommend
“Hormonal Inhibition of Feeding and Death in Octopus: Control by Optic Gland Secretion” by Jerome Wodinsky, Science, 02 Dec 1977: Vol. 198, Issue 4320, pp. 948-951
The Eternal Mothers was created using assets and imagery from Elite Dangerous, with the permission of Frontier Developments plc, for non-commercial purposes. It is not endorsed by nor reflects the views or opinions of Frontier Developments and no employee of Frontier Developments was involved in the making of it.
Matthias Niklas / CMDR Kuroshio